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Iraq inquiry may have election impact

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 30 July 2009

The chairman of the long-awaited inquiry into the Iraq War has been setting out how he plans to carry through his investigation.

Gordon Brown (picture: Reuters)

Sir John Chilcot and his four-strong panel are expected to take at least a year to examine the issues and have promised to be thorough, frank, fair and as open as possible.

Sir John has already stated that he feels it "essential" that as much evidence as possible is heard in public, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown was forced to abandon plans for a behind-closed-doors probe.

Q&A: Iraq war inquiry

Opposition politicians want him to expressly rule out hearing anything in private other than material which could pose a "grave" threat to public safety.

Sir John, who was a member of Lord Butler's 2004 inquiry into the intelligence used to justify the invasion, has also been looking into ways to put witnesses under some form of "oath". Mr Brown's original announcement that the inquiry would not be open was met with scorn and derision by a string of senior political and military figures and sparked a hasty U-turn.

It was reported that predecessor Tony Blair had urged him to allow witnesses to give evidence in secret.

The Government also quickly moved away from Mr Brown's initial insistence that it would not apportion blame, with Foreign Secretary David Miliband telling MPs it could "praise or blame whoever it likes".

The inquiry is expected to look at an eight-year period from summer 2001 to July 2009, taking in the build-up to the invasion and the intelligence used to justify it, the March 2003 conflict itself and the aftermath right up to this year's withdrawal of UK troops.

It has been promised access to "the fullest range of information, including secret information" and will be able to call on any British documents and witnesses.

The prime minister has said that "given the complexity of the issues" it would take a year, meaning that its conclusions will not be published until next July at the earliest.

That is after the last possible date for the next general election, leading Tory leader David Cameron and other critics to suggest it has been fixed by the government to avoid "facing up to any inconvenient conclusions".

Sir John has been consulting with the leaders of political parties and others directly affected by the conflict, such as bereaved relatives of service personnel, in drawing up the details of the inquiry.

In a letter to Mr Brown, he said: "I believe it will be essential to hold as much of the proceedings of the inquiry as possible in public, consistent with the need to protect national security and to ensure and enable complete candour in the oral and written evidence from witnesses."

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: "Public confidence in government was badly hit by the murky and disastrous decisions taken in the run-up to the Iraq war.

"If there is to be any hope of rebuilding public trust, it is essential that the vast majority of this inquiry is held in public.

"The only exception to this must be when there are genuine matters of grave national security at stake.

"The decision-making process on what evidence is heard publicly and privately must be fully transparent and independent of government."

Sir John is an intelligence expert who was the top civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and a member of Lord Butler's 2004 inquiry into Iraq war intelligence.

The other members of the inquiry team are: Baroness Usha Prashar, Sir Roderick Lyne, Sir Lawrence Freedman and Sir Martin Gilbert.

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